In the end, what he gave me was one last perfect day.
When I visited my father in Ohio over the last 18 months of his life, the visits were short.
I’m feeling the need to reassure you that we loved each other dearly. And we did. But, in some ways we were cut from the same cloth. Patience was never one of our finer virtues. We could be dynamos when set on accomplishing something, but God help the person who got in our way. And after about 24 hours, we seemed to get in each other’s way.
Had I lived closer, this would not have been an issue because our time together would have been much more frequent, but not 24/7. But, the situation was what it was.
Nevertheless, goodbyes were tough. I wondered if each goodbye would be the last one and Dad worried about me (as he had since I was a little girl). For some reason, he felt if I was in close proximity to him, I was safe. He seemed to believe this even as he lost well over 50 pounds and wheeled an oxygen tank everywhere. His image of himself as my protector held firm. I must admit, I love that he never doubted his ability to defend me from whatever nefarious forces he thought were out there.
So when my sister called to tell me that hospice felt he was entering the “active dying” stage, a stage I hope you don’t have to know the particulars of any time soon, I knew I had better get to him as quickly as possible. I had missed my mother’s passing and wanted him to know I was there to hold his hand.
I got there late in the evening. A family friend was watching my little one and my sister left to get some much-needed sleep. I whispered in his ear when I arrived, “Dad, it’s me. I’m here. I love you and I’m here.” It was really all I wanted him to know. And even though he was unconscious, he indicated he had heard me. A fleeting look of relief seemed to cross his face; now I know why. He was waiting for me.
I took the overnight shift, alternating between whispering to him and trying to catch some shuteye in the lounger next to his bed. We didn’t know if he would be with us for hours or days, and I wanted to be sure I was there for the marathon. I wanted to see him through this, as he’d seen me through so many of my own tests in life. I wanted to see him through this in a way I hadn’t been able to see him through the previous months.
If you’ve ever watched a loved one die, you may recognize what I did that night. I gazed at his face, his hands, the shape of him under the blanket, trying to memorize it all. Trying to commit it to memory so indelibly that neither time nor death would rob me of the memory of it. It’s still with me, five months later.
I can’t say the same for my mother. She died almost two years ago and it pains me that I am losing the sound of her voice. I used to be able to replay it in my head but it’s getting harder and harder to do. Perhaps that is why I’ve saved a voicemail from my father and continue to play it when I need to hear his voice. It was left on my birthday. My sweet sister dialed for him (he never did master the art of the cell phone) and he said five simple words: “Party big. Love you, Peanut.” Maybe I save it because I just need to hear someone call me Peanut every so often. Whatever the reason, it reminds me of a love that is still real, but harder to feel across whatever divide his soul has crossed.
When morning arrived, so did another sister. I left reluctantly to get sleep and tend to my duties as a mother. I was back later that day and then again the next morning. Our time was broken into bits, but I didn’t care. I was lucky to have it. He opened his eyes only once, but saw me. Saw me calm, saw me comforting, saw the love that felt like it was just pouring out of me. It was enough.
The morning of his death, I had brought my youngest with me to say goodbye. He patted my father’s arm and hand as he had just a month or so prior on Father’s Day. He told Dad he loved him, and he sat in the room to read silently next to my father’s bed. We gave them a few minutes alone so my son could have this last gift of time.
A few minutes later, my sister and I took my son down the hall for a quick game of chess and lunch. We were giving Dad some privacy as he was about to be bathed in bed. Before we left the room, we kissed him. I told him we loved him so much and would be right back after his bath. He was still ruddy in the face, breathing peacefully and looking like himself, although unconscious. Science told me he was with us for a day or two longer.
But my father had other ideas. No more than a couple of minutes after we left his room, his aide ran down the hall, yelling for my sister and I to come to him immediately. As I began to run down the hall, reassuring my son I’d be back momentarily, I really still didn’t think it was the end. And yet, when I reached the room, there he was—completely drained of color, as he would look in the casket several days later.
I provide the detail only because it was a purposeful death. He went from his warm, fully alive self to leaving us in a split second. My father, a gentleman to the end, had waited for us to leave before he agreed to go. And he had given me almost exactly 24 hours of time with him, scattered as it was over a couple of days. Dad had allowed me to hold his hand and whisper to him of God not waiting on the mountaintop for the weary traveler, but meeting him on the final climb to escort him home.
I know God met my father on this climb. But I have a feeling Dad asked him for a bit of extra time—time he knew I sorely needed to get to him and spend one last perfect day. For that, I’m grateful to both of my fathers—the human and the divine.
As he took his last breath, my sister and I were by his side. It was peaceful. Sacred. A privilege I’ll never take for granted. To witness the ushering of a soul into God’s arms is not what some would call a perfect end to a perfect day. But for my father and me, it was. If he could have spoken, I think he would have said, “It went too fast.” And I would have answered, “But we had a whole day together. Isn’t that wonderful?” And of course he would have answered, “Yes, we did. A perfect day.”